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by Jessica Kiang

Last week at the Marrakech Film Festival, we got to sit down in a small press group with jury member Gemma Arterton. She’s an actress who for a while seemed to be following a fairly standard route, especially for a British starlet, following up her first film “St Trinian’s” with some period TV before landing a Bond girl role in “Quantum of Solace.” However, since that breakout, while she’s done studio fare (“Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” the upcoming “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters”), we’ve also seen her skew more eccentric with some of her choices, taking small, British films like “Tamara Drewe” and “Song for Marion” along with edgy indie thriller “The Disappearance Of Alice Creed,” and she boasts a forthcoming lineup that promises much more interesting fare to come.

One of those interesting-looking movies is next year’s “Runner, Runner” from “The Lincoln Lawyer” director Brad Fuhrman. Penned by David Levien and Brian Koppelman (“Rounders“), the film — which will see her star alongside a great cast — will tell the story of a Princeton student who gets cheated out of his tuition playing online poker, but winds up as the right hand man of the dude running the site. “It’s a thriller about online gambling in central America and the dirty, filthy underworld of that. Ben Affleck is in it, and I play his right hand woman I guess, and also it’s a bit sleazy — our relationship,” Arterton said. “Justin Timberlake is the hero of the piece; there are some great actors in it — Anthony Mackie who was in ‘The Hurt Locker‘ — he’s brilliant. It’s all very sexy and shot by the guy that shot ‘Avatar‘ [Mauro Fiore] so it has a film noir feel to it — that dirty bling world.”

She goes on to clear up some confusion (ours, we confess) surrounding a movie about famed war photographer Robert Capa, a project to which she was also linked a couple years back with Andrew Garfield said to be in the lead. It appears we might have a Capote/Hitchcock situation on our hands again here: “There’s two versions: ‘Waiting for Robert Capa’ which is Michael Mann’s and my version which is just called ‘Capa,’ ” says Arterton. “It’s now being directed by Paul Andrew Williams who directed ‘Song for Marion.’ The original screenplay was by Menno Meyjes… We’re in the process of casting our Capa, and I hope it happens because it’s such a great story. And I hope we do it before Michael Mann! I’m like, ‘Quick, hurry up!’ because obviously ours would be a lower budget.”

But the film it becomes clear she is most excited about is Neil Jordan’s “Byzantium.” The picture, which will be released sometime next year stateside and co-stars Saoirse Ronan, Sam Riley and Caleb Landry-Jones, tells the story of two women (and vampires — Arterton and Ronan) who find their immortal lives challenged when the younger woman begins a tentative relationship with a sickly teenager. In our review from TIFF, we called Arterton’s turn “committed, tremendously sexy and vicious.”

“I got the script for ‘Byzantium‘ while I was shooting ‘Hansel & Gretel,’ and it’s an amazing script, written by a woman, which is very rare, and it’s all about girls. Neil Jordan flew over to meet me and offered me the job on the spot, and I was like [gasp!] because it was the perfect job for me… I’m really happy with that film, I think its boundary-pushing in that genre,” she enthused about the movie.

Of course it does mean U.S audiences will see her as a witch hunter and a vampire within a few months. “Yeah, the whole witches, vampires thing was a coincidence. Now I only need to do a zombie film and I’ll have collected the whole set,” she laughs. However she is clear that “Byzantium” is not your standard vamp movie. “The original draft wasn’t really about vampires at all, they rewrote it a lot. They’re selling it like that because, well, it works. But we’re not really vampires, we drink blood, but we don’t have fangs and we can live in the daytime. [Jordan] likes to use the word ‘succreant’ [rather than ‘vampire’] which is quite sensual, which is what we are.”

Tonally, it’s a complete contrast to “Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters,” the fairy tale reboot co-starring Jeremy Renner, which will be out in January. That film, she explains “…is just really funny. The kids [from the fairy tale] got totally traumatised, ate lots of sugar and got diabetes and grew up to fight witches… It’s a similar genre to an Edgar Wright movie, a horror-comedy.”

And her Gretel does gently suvbert her persona, perhaps. “She’s a damaged girl, very masculine, but very vulnerable. It’s nice for me that she’s not the love interest. Another girl is the hot babe and I’m the tomboy.” But of course, it is still apparent that Gretel has her damsel side and from the trailer alone, we see she needs rescuing.

“You’re so right!” says Arterton immediately. “At the time I didn’t think about it and in hindsight I’m like, yeah, I get captured and Hansel has to save me? And I spoke to the director and I said, ‘That’s not fair, wouldn’t it be funnier if he got captured and I had to save him?’ and he said…well I can’t give away the ending, but he said, You do have the payoff.’ And he’s right, I do have the payoff at the end.”

It gets us thinking about how much she chafes against being cast as the “pretty poster girl”? “I used to be [only offered those parts] and I’ve been very vocal about how I don’t want to do that any more, and now I don’t get offered those parts any more.” But it’s a difficult choice for an actress of her age and profile.

“I shouldn’t say this but I had a meeting at a big studio about 6 months ago, and she said, “I’ve seen all your movies, I loved you in ‘Alice Creed,’ I love you in ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles’ so how about the hot girl in ‘blah blah blah’ movie? — I can’t say the film, but just the most awful action movie ever,” she said. And I said, ‘Are you serious? Are you joking?’ And she was like, ‘Well that’s all we have for you.’ But that’s what the majority of the parts are for somebody my age, you just have to be really strong and not take them, and hope that the great parts, like ‘Byzantium,’ come along.”

In fact, she has very firm and passionate views on women in Hollywood. “It’s a hard industry to be a woman in. I think it’s changing. It’s a big subject for me, I get very upset about the lack of female representation in the film industry… I need to start my own production company that’s geared around women, and commission female writers and directors.” But she is understanding of the different challenges a female director might face “As a director you have to be so, so strong in your opinions and you can’t succumb… I mean, as actors, we can go off and do a piece of independent theater and then do a big-budget movie to pay our mortgage, and then come back and do an independent film. You can’t do that as a director because you sacrifice your reputation. You have to be so certain and strong and as a female director, the bottom line is it’s sexist, this industry, and female directors are given less opportunities.”

Unsurprisingly, given these opinions, the first name that comes to mind when we ask Arterton who she’d most like to work with (after Michael Haneke) is British director Andrea Arnold, for all the reasons you might expect, but also because of an accident of geography: “I really, really love Andrea Arnold. I’d love to work with her…she’s definitely on my list, and also we’re from the same town, she’s from Dartford too. I met her and she was like ‘Oh, I know your street! I used to have sleepovers in house opposite you.’ And the films that she makes, especially like ‘Fish Tank’ — that’s the world I grew up in.”

Arterton says she was first turned on to film acting after seeing Bjork in “Dancer in the Dark” (“I’m sure she was very damaged by it. But she was so brilliant in it and it was such an amazing performance. That was what captivated me, the process — how did she do it?”), and also claims she’d have no fear working for a director like Lars von Trier. “I am not afraid of things like that, I think I kind of crave it, in fact. I like to be challenged and most of the time you’re not. I like the idea of going somewhere else, of being a bit out of control, having to trust the director so implicitly that you are putting your emotions and everything in their hands.”

If there is a major blot on Arterton’s copybook to date, it is probably the bloated, overblown and ultimately totally forgettable would-be franchise starter “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.” It’s an experience she’s typically candid about: “I had a really hard time making that film. It was my first foray into very big studio movies, and I lost faith in studio movies, really. I’d done a couple of movies that had just burnt me so bad… Because you are nobody, your opinion doesn’t matter, and I come from theater where everyone’s opinion matters…”

But again, Arterton reveals her pragmatic side — it was an unpleasant experience for her, but one which she believes helped her grow: “I’m glad it happened early on in my career because I learned how to deal with it, and this time, on ‘Hansel & Gretel’ it was totally different, because I was like, ‘right. this is how it’s gonna be. You’re not going to fuck me over.’ And I’ve also learned with those films, you just have to let them be what they’re gonna be. Because there’s no way I can go along to the edit and say, ‘I think I did better in that take, how about we..?’ You can’t do that, it’s too big a deal, there are too many people involved.”

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters” releases January 25, 2013.

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